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State sets guidelines for schools to close for COVID outbreak

Wisconsin schools now have uniform instructions for when and how to shut down in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak as part of new guidelines from the state health department to help districts manage infections during the school year.

The document — which is not a mandate — builds on the limited guidance Wisconsin schools have received from the state since the threat of the coronavirus pandemic became elevated in the spring, leading public health officials in March to shut down all public and private K-12 schools.

The guidelines, released on Aug. 19, come less than two weeks before the majority of schools prepare to reopen in some capacity in the fall.

The reality is that there will be outbreaks in schools once the school year starts, Traci DeSalvo, acting director of the state Bureau of Communicable Diseases, told reporters in a media briefing. The guidance is meant to provide a framework, but allow districts to tailor it to their needs.

“It’s really going to be something that’s going to vary from school to school and district to district,” DeSalvo said. “That’s why our guidance provides a set of guidelines but isn’t so prescriptive about things that you have to do in every setting.”

While the state’s largest school districts — including Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay — have opted to start the year entirely online, many smaller, rural and suburban districts plan to welcome students back to classrooms on Sept. 1 or sooner for face-to-face learning.

The state had yet to provide schools with instructions on how to handle inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks in school buildings, as well as when and how they should close individual classrooms, schools or the entire district.

“Education Forward,” an 87-page document released by the state Department of Public Instruction in June, warned school officials to prepare for 18 more months of the coronavirus threat, and listed ideas for how in-person learning, completely virtual instruction and a hybrid model combining the two could work.

Other recommendations mentioned in the document included both children and staff wearing masks as much as possible, shrinking class sizes and rearranging desks to allow for social distancing – as well as scheduling routine hand washing throughout the school day and providing hand sanitizer on buses.

The new guidelines spell out scenarios that might prompt a pause in in-person learning, in the case that an outbreak grows too large to be contained by keeping a few people home.

All families and staff should be notified with a letter whenever a single case of COVID-19 is identified in the school, the document says. DHS interim state health officer Stephanie Smiley told reporters that schools, colleges and daycare facilities with outbreaks will be listed on the state’s website tracking facility-wide investigations.

Here’s what closures could look like in your child’s classroom, school or district: School administrators could shut down a classroom or cohort if: -- Classrooms need to be cleaned and no additional rooms are available for students -- Contact tracing is being done, especially when multiple cases are being traced at once -- Other mitigation strategies were tried and were unsuccessful at stopping spread between classmates -- A teacher is absent and no substitute teacher is available -- More students in the class or cohort are absent than present School administrators could shut down a school if: -- The number of staff absences are impeding instruction or the ability to provide lunch or other vital activities -- More student cohorts are absent than present -- Schoolwide disinfecting needs to be conducted -- Other mitigation strategies were unsuccessful at halting an outbreak District administrators could shut down a school district if: -- The local, county, state or federal government recommends closure -- The number of staff absences in the district are impeding vital district functions -- Contact tracing is occurring for cases in multiple schools (for example, in response to an outbreak traced to a multischool sporting event) -- Other mitigation strategies were unsuccessful at halting an outbreak